Disclaimer: This article has sensitive content regarding descriptions of rape and sexual assault which may be triggering for some. Reader discretion is advised.
During my schooling, in the books assigned to us for History, I remember studying about the caste system and how it was abolished. Over the years, reading the news and experiencing the world beyond the institutionalised schooling, I have questioned the relevance of learning about the caste system solely through History textbooks when in fact, it is highly prevalent and relevant even today. The “Hathras case” (as it has come to be known), which involves the rape and death of a 19-year old woman, and the consequent failure of the criminal justice system to take even routine action on the case has influenced the writing of this article. Through this article, I highlight the presence of the caste system in India and the bearing it has on seeking justice and the dismissal of basic human rights.
On September 14 2020, in the district of Hathras, Uttar Pradesh, India a 19-year old Dalit woman was raped and left for dead in a millet field. She was found in the field by her mother who was on her way to cut grass for cattle fodder. Her mother recalls finding her in the field, “She was lying on the ground, battered and bruised, barely conscious and naked from the waist downwards”. The woman was accompanied to the police station by her parents and brother. In a video filmed at the scene and shown to BBC reporters, she can be seen lying on the cement floor as she is questioned by a police officer. She tells the police officer that she was raped and strangled by the men. In a second video recorded at the district hospital mere hours later, she recounts the events yet again and names an upper-caste neighbour as the perpetrator. However, these statements made by the woman were not entered into the police records.
The Hathras superintendent of police, Vikrant Vir was suspended for ‘negligence and lax supervision’ and so were four other police officers. The 19-year old woman was in the hospital for two weeks before she succumbed to her injuries and died on 29th September 2020. Her autopsy results were not released and her body was cremated by the police and administrative officials. The parents were not informed of the cremation and it was at this time that this case made headlines. The state government has actively denied that she was raped and in some off-the-record conversations, officials have either denied or tried to downplay the rape allegations.
Furthermore, Additional Director General Prashant Kumar, a senior police official claimed that the woman’s family did not mention that she was raped in the initial complaint and said that there was no semen found in the 19-year old’s viscera sample, citing a forensic report that was based on the samples taken 11 days after she was raped. A leaked copy of a report by the hospital gynaecologist where the woman was examined, confirms that there was “use of force” and there had been “complete vaginal penetration with penis”.
On 22nd September when the 19-year old’s condition turned critical, she made a “dying declaration” in the presence of a magistrate. A dying declaration is usually taken at face value in court unless there is contradictory evidence, especially in cases of rape as they usually take place in isolated places with no witnesses. The case has now been handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).
The history of the Indian caste system has been greatly related to one of the more dominant religions in India, Hinduism. It has over time been altered many times during the Buddhist revolution and under the British rule.
“Dalits”, “Untouchables” or “Harijans” occupy the lowest rung in the Indian caste system. The 19-year old girl belonged to the Valmiki community, also categorised as Dalits. The four men that were accused are Thakurs who belong to the upper-caste warrior community. The caste system and hierarchy have always been and remain a politically charged notion in India. For individuals who are marginalised, disavowed and in most cases practically invisible, either have no space for their voices to be heard or are silenced. B.R. Ambedkar recognised that the Hindus observe caste not because they are inhuman or wrong-headed but because they are deeply religious. In his view, observing caste is not wrong but what is wrong is the inculcation of caste in religion. He believed that the acts of people are merely the results of the beliefs they have inculcated. I agree with the perception that notions and beliefs such as caste have been deeply ingrained and have been built upon, over centuries. The question remains, however, how is one to contest these beliefs which have been ingrained into society?
Rape itself has been a contentious issue in India where driven by patriarchal values and notions as well as toxic masculinity, the focus often turns to how women should conduct themselves and how men have a higher sexual drive which needs to be satisfied.
The caste system has created a very real division in the Indian society with deep-seated roots, in addition to which, we have patriarchy furthering the contentious view on rape, splitting the Indian society further. Where and how would a Dalit woman then, find space to voice her narrative and the atrocities she has gone through? And above all, who will listen?
According to Article 17 of the Indian Constitution, “Untouchability” is abolished and its practice in any form is forbidden. The enforcement of any disability arising out of “Untouchability” shall be an offence punishable in accordance with the law. Furthermore, The Protection of Civil Liberties Act, 1955 prescribes “punishment for the (preaching and practice of “Untouchability”) for the enforcement of any disability arising therefrom and for matters connected therewith.” While “Untouchability” has been recognised and regarded in the Constitution as well as The Protection of Civil Liberties Act, its cognisance and implementation remains questionable, and not just in the context of the present case.
According to Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code, rape is said to have been committed if a man, penetrates his penis or inserts any object or a part of the body to any extent, into the vagina, mouth, urethra or anus of a woman or makes her do so with him or any other person; or applies his mouth or manipulates any part of the body of a woman to cause penetration into the vagina, urethra, anus or any part of the body of such woman. These circumstances should coincide with any one of these seven criteria — it being against her will; without her consent; with her consent, when her consent has been obtained by putting her or any person in whom she is interested, in fear of death or of hurt; with her consent, when the man knows that he is not her husband and under the false pretence of being her husband; when her consent is taken when she is either unsound of mind or intoxicated; with or without her consent, when she is under eighteen years of age; when she is unable to communicate consent. Section 375 has major gaps in it and requires a thorough revision.
The 19-year old woman was raped, as defined by law and as per the evidence that has been leaked and reported by the media. “Untouchability” was practiced in her village and where her and her family are concerned. Both these aspects are punishable by law, however, the spectrum of violence and its cyclical nature and the denial of human rights are all that is made evident through this case.
The issue is not that there are no laws, the issue is that firstly, most of them need revisions that are long overdue. Second and more importantly, the enactment and implementation of these laws leave a lot to be desired. However, the implementation of the law cannot be looked at in isolation either, leading me back to the difficulty of contesting a belief system that is deeply ingrained.
This is an opinion article and only provides a brief overview of the caste system and cursory look at the law in India, in the context of the “Hathras case”. My reasons for writing this article are plenty, one of which is that it is personal because even sitting miles away in a different country this affected me. More than that however, I did not want this case to get lost after some time in the media, like so many others. Especially not, when the caste system is still a reality, its belief strong in the minds of individuals and its perpetuation still very alive in India.
[Image Source: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP via Scroll.in]
 There is a lot more to the caste-based discrimination and these links for further reading may help: